Friday, July 30, 2021

This Was Toscanini

This Was Toscanini: The Maestro, My Father, and Me by Samuel Antek and Lucy Antek Johnson Brown Books Publication Group, 2nd Edition; August 17, 2021 184 pages

This is a reissue of Samuel Antek's This Was Toscanini that was posthumously published in 1963. The 2021 second edition is clothed in a memoir written by Antek's daughter Lucy Antek Johnson, who offers a beautiful portrait of her father's life as a violinist in the NBC Symphony, the conductor of the New Jersey Symphony, and an excellent writer and keen observer of all things musical. Lucy Antek Johnson offers a beautiful prelude to the book, gives an introduction to each of Samuel Antek's chapters, and provides an excellent coda that follows the abrupt end (not an ending) to her father's book. Antek never finished the book because he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-nine, when his daughter was just twelve (in January of 1958).

I have read many memoirs that tell stories about life in the NBC Symphony, and I have heard countless stories about Toscanini (some, from second-hand experience, not terribly flattering; and some, from second-hand experience, lauditory). When the opportunity came up to get a review copy of this book to write about, I jumped at the chance.

The book arrived yesterday afternoon. It is beautifully printed on heavy paper, and is filled with beautiful photographs. I recoginized the candid in-rehearsal photographs of Toscanini taken by Robert Hupka from seeing them on the walls of my friend Anne's house. Anne got them from her father, Mischa Mischakoff, who was the concertmaster of the NBC Symphony, and one of Arturo Toscanini's closest associates.

This book is unusual. Samuel Antek does talk about Toscanini as a man, but only in the context of music. Antek's observations come from sitting in first violin section of the NBC Symphony from Christmas 1937 until April of 1954 (the entire run of Toscanini's association with the orchestra), being on tour with Toscanini in South America and in the United States, and being invited to Toscanini's house to discuss the Verdi Requiem, a piece Antek was preparing to conduct with the New Jersey Symphony.

The book is generously peppered with Toscanini's Italian outbursts (particularly Non mangiare le note! and Vergogna!), enhanced with stories told to Antek by Toscanini about working with Verdi, and specific discussions of dynamics, phrasing, balance, and articulation that make me want to pay more attention when I am practicing. Antek devotes an entire fascinating chapter to Toscanini's interpretation and preparation of Weber's Oberon Overture.

It seems that the "magic" of Toscanini was to strive tirelessly for his personal ideals in music making without ever compromising. He was extremely demanding of himself in his humble service to the music at hand, and to music in general. He demanded (by example and by direction) that the people he was making music with be dedicated to the details that he wanted to hear, and in doing so he could come off as emotionally volatile and even tyrannical. But despite all of the tantrums, the insults, the repetition, and the shaming (Vergogna), the musicians in the orchestra loved him, and became better musicians because of working with him.

After finishing the book (I think I read it in three sittings over the course of two days), I realized that most of the Toscanini stories I had heard over the years from musicians who did not know Toscanini personally must have come from the first 1963 edition of This Was Toscanini. I'm so glad that Lucy Antek Johnson has expanded, contextualized, and illustrated this beautifully written portrait of a singular man and an extraordinary time in American musical history.

Times have indeed changed. But just because this document comes from a period in American musical life when big city professional orchestras were "manned" mostly by male players and conductors (some who behaved in ways that are intolerable today), this book should not be ignored by people striving for a more equitable musical future. It is a beautifully written and beautifully produced document that offers us a glimpse into a golden age in American music making.

Lucy Antek Johnson's coda includes a statement from George Szell, "Toscanini was a truth seeker. . . . There was before Toscanini and after Toscanini."

I'll end this post with a little taste of text taken from the chapter "Playing with Toscanini":
It was an arresting experience to sit on the stage facing him. His face was broad and muscular, its bone structure bold. Standing on the podium, he seemed almost tall. But I was someewhat surprised every time I spooke to him to realize how small he actually was. The most outstanding feature of his unusally handsome face was his eyes, which had a strange and enigmatic expression. Toscanini was, of course, very nearsighted, but in spite of this, on the podium, he never wore his glasses. When he had occasion to refer to the score, he brought it up to within an inch of his face, as thought smelling it, or bent down to the music on the stand. But though he seemingly had poor vision, he could spot the slightest bow movement of a bass player thirty feet away or the movement of a violinist at the back of the orchestra. The actual expression on his face closely resembled that of a blind person; his eyes had that vacant, staring quality of somehow not being focused. When he addressed himself to a section of the orchestra, he seemed to be looking through it, not at it. At times this puzzled the players, particularly when he lashed out at one of them with a venomous comment. We were never quite sure at whom he was looking, for his unfocused, angry stare seemed to be accusing us all.
I think that this book would make a great present to give to friends who are musicians, friends who love music, and maybe it would be a great present to give to yourself.


gus said...

What is more open to a wide swath of human behaviors and interactions than the act of music-making? An example of musiking near one end of the spectrum (for labeling convenience I call it the left-end) is the interactions of friends gathered together to play recreational chamber music; working together with gentleness and collegiality to sound out a score. An example at the other end (the right-end) is the professional symphony orchestra of a generation close to our own that had the misfortune to be ruled by the tyrannical conductor. In between these two opposites is a multitude of shades and hues.

Alas that Toscanini is to me an example of a musician occupying the far-right end of that immense span. This opinion has been with me for most of my musical life, but was solidified to a conviction recently when I heard audio clips of his rantings during rehearsal. Perhaps it is true that some of the musicians in his orchestra loved him. But in pointing that out, it neglects those who were victims of his abuse. That he vigorously opposed Fascism is admirable. Still the question should not be swept aside: how many lives were ruined by being in his orchestras?

The problem with hearing a finished and fine musical performance is that we hear only that. We don’t hear the moments of radiance or the hell that went into the making of it. Having no knowledge of the process is certainly a blessing. Being “blissfully ignorant” we are allowed to listen to the end results with edification or pleasure. But if we do have knowledge of the proceedings, then should we let that color our aesthetic response to what we hear? It is a difficult question; one that I have grappled with for a long time. Approaching (slowly, I hope!) the finale of my own particular span, though, I’m starting to formulate an answer.

“Only by sheer accident” writes Lytton Strachey in Portraits in Miniature, “when some particular drop from the ocean of empty water is slipped under the microscope….do we perceive for an amazed moment or two the universe of serried and violent sensations that lie concealed so perfectly in the transparency of oblivion.”

Alas that those audio clips of Toscanini hurling invective and abuse at other human beings survived. Those dreadful artifacts are Strachey’s “particular drops.” It is those tears that make it difficult for me to have the memory of that particular musician, and the performances he made, be a blessing.

Jonathan Brodie

Elaine Fine said...

Years ago my friend Seymour Barab gave me a memoir called Dangerous Harmonies written by Harold Coletta, who was a violist in the NBC Symphony. Colletta was Italian, and was very close with Toscanini's chauffer, who told him stories about Toscanini's personal life that were quite different from Antek's account. Toscanini's chauffer was on call at all hours of the night. I can't find the physical book (I believe I gave it to my father because I thought he would enjoy reading it), but I did write a blog post about it:

And my friend's mother, who is no longer alive, and was very attractive when she was a young woman, had to physically run away from him once. Another friend who, as a boy, sang in a chorus with the NBC Symphony told me that he saw Toscanini backstage watching "the fights" on a television in his dressing room.

I think that we, as human beings, see and hear the world through various forms of protective eyewear! I know that recordings I once considered distasteful (musically speaking) because of "rules" I happened to be following at a particular time seem to have gotten better over time because of changes that have happened in the widening of my world.

Before reading this memoir I thought of Toscanini as a man mostly through Coletta's memoir, and I'm glad to have my view opened up a bit.